Helping college kids COPE

An individual’s college years can be some of the most formative, and some of the most challenging. At the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, there is a program that is meant to help students make it through these years with plenty of support, particularly when it comes to mental health and well-being.

The group is known as COPE (Counseling Outreach Peer Educators) and has been around since 2012. Danielle A. Hughes-Kruger, Psy.D., is a staff psychologist at Holy Cross and the coordinator of COPE. She explains that the group was founded to meet a need for peer educators on campus dealing directly with mental health. “We wanted to create student ambassadors to the Counseling Center, students who could speak to the support provided in our Center and who could destigmatize and normalize the use of the services,” she said. “We know that students listen to professionals, but we know they really listen to one another.”

Stigmas and mental health

The mission of COPE is to facilitate a strong connection between the Counseling Center and Holy Cross students through outreach programs designed to increase student awareness of mental health issues and reduce the stigma associated with seeking help, said Dr. Hughes-Kruger. It is a peer education group, not peer counseling.

One of the challenges COPE faces is getting students to seek help and open up in the first place. “It is hard to talk about mental health and even harder to talk about it at an age where students feel like they’re supposed to be having the best four years of their life,” said Dr. Hughes-Kruger. “Sometimes it can be hard for students to engage with therapists, but when they’re able to talk to a student first — who then refers them directly to one therapist or walks with them to the Center — it makes the process far less scary and much more personal.”

Matthew Scarth has been a member of COPE for almost two years. One of the biggest challenges Scarth, a senior psychology major, has seen in his time with COPE has been reaching more students on campus. They established a social media presence and have collaborated with other student groups to increase awareness of the services that are offered. “By prioritizing timing and location for students, coupled with effective advertising through our social media sites and school offices, we have managed to populate our programs and successfully engage students.”

Scarth feels that COPE and similar programs are extremely important to have on campuses across the country. “Our program enables those struggling to have a voice and allows people to come to terms with the fact that there is no weakness in asking for help; asking for help is a sign of strength and a crucial step in taking care of one’s mental health,” he said. “Giving people a voice and creating a social support network for one to rely on is not only critical for the individual’s emotional well-being, but also for creating a community of caring in places such as college campuses.”

Range of self-care

Amy Schlegel is a senior at Holy Cross, with a double major in psychology and sociology. She has been involved with COPE for three years as a peer educator, having learned about the program as a freshman.

“I have always had a vested interest in mental health,” she said, “as it is often neglected within the college community in favor of academic success. COPE provided me the opportunity to engage in this discussion in the role of a peer educator by connecting students to the counseling center and raising awareness on the various ways college students can prioritize their well-being by engaging in self-care activities.”

Schlegel points out that students can apply to COPE each spring and are accepted for the following fall semester. The week before classes start in the fall, students receive training that includes presentations by the psychologists of the college’s counseling department on the many services offered by the counseling center; there is also training about mandatory reporting, establishing rapport with students, and cultural competency.

There are many services and programs organized by COPE, including an Eating Disorders Screening Table, a Depression Screening Day, and a Homesickness Table. “Our two major events are Fresh Check Day and COPE Well week,” said Schlegel. Fresh Check Day consists of several campus groups, such as Students for Responsible Choices, who focus on alcohol use; Relationship Peer Educators, who focus on sexual assault; and the Jordan Porco Foundation, which focuses on suicide prevention.

COPE Well Week is scheduled during the end of the term, typically in the spring, allowing students an opportunity to engage in de-stressing activities. The week includes many activities; one of the more symbolically profound of which is called the COPE luminary, an annual tradition in which the word “COPE” is spelled out in front of the campus center using white paper bags with candles inside.

“The symbolic meaning behind this is that each of the bags represents one person that utilized the counseling center within the last year,” said Schlegel. “This gives students as well as faculty and staff a visual representation of how many students use the counseling center each year, which helps destigmatize the act of seeking professional help.”

COPE is a relatively new group. In some ways, this has worked to their advantage, as they are able to still cultivate their image. Schlegel said that she used to be greeted by puzzlement when telling people she was a member of COPE. “I think we have met this challenge by engaging more readily on social media as we have designated students from COPE who manage our social media accounts,” she said. “It has helped tremendously with not only familiarizing students with the name of our group, but the importance of mental health.”

Embodying support

For many students, a greater emphasis is placed on academic achievement at the expense of health — physical, mental and spiritual. “Specifically, at Holy Cross there is a tendency to always be doing something to further ourselves along the academic journey in such a way that we may minimize emotional or social concerns until they become unbearable,” Schlegel said. “COPE wants students to be able to recognize that they may be engaging in unhealthy behaviors such as feeling too stressed or even being homesick.”

The diversity of students in COPE is a great asset for the program, according to Schlegel. “I think the various perspectives really allow our program to thrive, since our campus community is not homogenous and there are always certain populations we may be neglecting,” she said. “So it’s beneficial to have members of different parts of the community to make sure we are reaching everyone with our message.”

“Having COPE is absolutely essential to having the student voice heard on our campus,” said Hughes-Kruger. These are conversations that are not always had at home or in the classroom, she said, so it is crucial that students realize help is available.

“Watching others embody that hope and that support is often what allows students to ask for the help they need,” she said. “Without these examples and this education, many would likely go without.”

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During one Fresh Check Day — a suicide prevention event — Hughes-Kruger was approached by a freshman who asked her to thank COPE on her behalf. She expressed how comforted and secure she felt knowing a group like COPE was on campus and went on to explain that she knew she could find the help she needed on campus. “As COPE’s coordinator and mentor I was proud to pass on the message,” said Dr. Hughes-Kruger. “As the saying goes, if even one student feels that way — feels seen, feels taken care of — then we’re doing our job.”

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.

Read all College Special Section 2018 articles here.